Chinese Cinderella is the perfect title for Adeline Yen Mah’s compelling autobiography in which, like the fairy-tale maiden, her childhood was ruled by a cruel stepmother. “Fifth Younger Sister” or “Wu Mei,” as Yen Mah was called, is only an infant when her father remarries after her mother’s death. As the youngest of her five siblings, Wu Mei suffers the worst at the hands of her stepmother Niang. She is denied carfare, frequently forgotten at school at the end of the day, and whipped for daring to attend a classmate’s birthday party against Niang’s wishes. Her father even forgets the spelling of her name when filling out her school enrollment record. In her loneliness, Wu Mei turns to books for company: “I was alone with my beloved books. What bliss! To be left in peace with Cordelia, Regan, Gonoril, and Lear himself–characters more real than my family… What happiness! What comfort!”

Even though Wu Mei is repeatedly moved up to grades above those of her peers, it is only when she wins an international play-writing contest in high school that her father finally takes notice and grants her wish to attend college in England. Despite her parent’s heartbreaking neglect, she eventually becomes a doctor and realizes her dream of being a writer.

Teens, with their passionate convictions and strong sense of fair play, will be immediately enveloped in the gross injustice of Adeline Yen Mah’s story. A complete glossary, historical notes on the state of Chinese society and politics during Yen Mah’s childhood, and the legend of the original Chinese Cinderella round out this stirring testimony to the strength of human character and the power of education. (Ages 10 to 15)–Jennifer Hubert

Publishers Weekly

Starred review

“Mah revisits the territory she covered in her adult bestseller, Falling Leaves, for this painful and poignant memoir aimed at younger readers…The author recreates moments of cruelty and victory so convincingly that readers will feel almost as if they’re in the same room with her. She never veers from a child’s sensibility; the child in these pages rarely judges the actions of those around her, she’s simply bent on surviving…This memoir is hard to put down.”

From Booklist

October 1, 1999

“Mama died giving birth to you. If you had not been born, Mama would still be alive.” Even though Mama died two weeks after the birth from a fever, this brutal message dooms Wu Mei (Fifth Younger Sister) throughout her sad and lonely childhood in China during the 1940s and 1950s. Wu Mei, whose English name is Adeline, faces the anger and cruelty of her family; only an aunt and frail grandfather are supportive. Shunted off to boarding schools, left out of family activities, Adeline nevertheless… read more

From Horn Book

After her mother dies giving birth to her, Adeline’s siblings, who consider her bad luck, scapegoat her, and her wealthy father and vain stepmother deprive her of friends and send her away to school. This riveting memoir of a turbulent childhood is enriched by Chinese-language lessons, a generous historical backdrop, and a half-dozen family photos; baldly expository dialogue is its only real flaw. — Copyright © 1999 The Horn Book, Inc. All rights reserved.

Adeline pours her heart and soul into her books

October 2004

Reviewer: Posted on website

“Chinese Cinderella” is the younger reader’s version of Adeline Yen Mah’s autobiography “Falling Leaves” and both versions are thoroughly worth reading. If however, you are under fifteen, then “Chinese Cinderella” makes for an easier read whilst still keeping the amazing experience of the author’s life intact. Told in first person narrative, “Chinese Cinderella” recounts the author’s extraordinary childhood as an unwanted daughter.

Adeline Yen/Wu Mei (“Fifth Younger Sister”), never knew her mother, as she died soon after her birth. Because of this, she was deemed unlucky, and all photos of her mother were destroyed. Despite her wonderful academic talents which constantly keep her at the top of the class, her family constantly ignored or tormented her – she was bullied by her older brothers, spurned by her elder sister, ignored by her father and beaten by her stepmother Niang. Yet for all of this, each member of her family is presented as a real person, capable of both good and evil, and Adeline records their rare moments of kindness like they were precious gems. Her two sources of constant affection was her aunt Baba, an unmarried woman dependant on Adeline’s father and stepmother for financial support, and her grandfather caught between two worlds: the old traditions when a man his age wielded respect, and the new mindset which saw him as a burden and the object of harmful pranks by his grandson.

Adeline records her entire childhood, through several schools and houses, through the people she meets and one very special duckling pet – Precious Little Treasure (or PLT for short) that she cares for. She records her sister’s wedding, her school friends, and her on-going quest for knowledge, and most surreal of all, her time at a convent in Tianjin that slowly empties, leaving her the only student left in the entire school. As well as this, Adeline explains the political upheaval and historical backdrop of her life in hindsight, something she obviously didn’t understand as a child.

Throughout the sad and often terrible story of her life, Adeline’s narrative never once slips into whines or self-pity – everything is presented in such a simple, matter of fact manner that we never feel pity for her – only profound sorrow and sympathy. Her determination and dignity is amazing to behold, from her refusal to take money for the tram (even though her elder siblings soon give in) to her diligent studies and scholarship. Furthermore, she beautifully brings her childhood feelings to life; especially in regard to the deep sense of fear that all abused children carry. Although older readers know that nothing truly harmful would be allowed to happen to Adeline, the imagination and terror that a child’s mind can invoke made me just as fearful of Niang as she was. People often believe that abused children are indignant and outspoken about their home troubles, but Adeline clearly shows us that this is almost never the case – she is ashamed and secretive of her home life, and unfortunately the desire to keep their troubles hidden from their friends is the fate of most such children.

The power of knowledge and perseverance is the theme at the forefront of this book: unlike the Western Cinderella who sat around crying for her fairy godmother, the Chinese Cinderella Ye Xian worked for her good fortune and so does Adeline herself. It is humbling to read of a girl so desperate for learning and education when we acquire it so easily but often don’t appreciate it. Adeline pours her heart and soul in her books, and often reflects on her love of reading, with passages that any book-lover will immediately understand, and any reluctant reader will hopefully take into account.

Never once does she appear for feel overly sorry for herself, despite the unfair way in which she was treated. Rather than the cruel pranks and physical harm she suffers, it is the smaller, more poignant events that

come across as more tragic: people forgetting to pick her up from school, letters being prevented from reaching her, her family neglecting to tell her that her grandfather had died, the awful clothing she’s forced to wear, and most shocking of all, her father forgetting her name. The fact that Adeline makes it through all of this to become a stable and loving person is perhaps the biggest miracle of all. What a human being!

The book also contains a preface, an author’s note on the names and languages used, a map of China, an historical note, some fascinating photographs of the family members, and a dedication “to all unwanted children.” Everyone, boy or girl, young or old, should be made to read this book.

Powerful true tale of childhood abuse in post war Shanghai

September 14, 1999

Reviewer: Readers Review posted on from New York

Totally captivating,simply written. A study in bravery and strength of character of a sort unknown to me as a child. Despite the wealth of her Shanghai family Dr. Mah vividly describes a life of being ignored, routinely ill-treated almost constantly between the ages of four and fourteen. I kept asking how parents with any heart at all could treat a courageous small child so cruelly. (Forgetting to pick her up from school on her first day in first grade? Beating her until her nose bled because school friends came to her home? Not attending any of her school prize days?) I bought this book at Hong Kong airport last Monday and read it three times through between there and New York. I kept turning back to the haunting face of the eight year old Adeline on the paperback cover. I

Adeline’s grand aunt (younger sister of grandfather) 1920’s, founder of the Shanghai Women’s Bank in Shanghai, China

repeatedly found tears rolling down my cheeks not just out of pity but in appreciation of her strength and resillience. Many adult Americans would still be spending time with a psychotherapist and blaming their failures on this type of childhood.In Adeline Mah’s case it gave her a strength and determination I must say I envy. She may still be suffering but I found this book inspirational.

Great Book! January 9, 2000

Reviewer: Readers Review posted on from Vienna, Austria

I really enjoyed reading this book. From the point I started reading this book I was compelled to reading it and would only hesitantly put it down. The book was easy to read and understand. I was always able to sympathize with the feelings that Adeline Yen Mah had as a child. I liked that the book was set in China and made me more familiar to Chinese history and life. It was fascinating how Adeline Yen Mah was able to

write about her childhood without pitying herself for the bad incidents that happened in her life. I liked that as a child Adeline Yen Mah was always optimistic and positive about her future even though she went through very bad times. I wish the book would be longer and not end so abruptly. Because of reading this superb book I am almost certain that I will read her autobiography “Falling Leaves”.

A moving autobiography

June 1, 2000

Reviewer: Readers Reviews posted on from New Zealand

This book, as I expected, was moving and sad. I recommend this book to people who would like to discover how it feels to be unwanted and truely sad. Well worth the money! Was this review helpful to you?ÊÊ

A heartwarming story.

May 18, 2000

Reviewer: Readers Review posted on from England

Chinese Cinderella is a heartwarming story. It is the story of adeline yen mah, a unwanted child. Her mother died when she was born so Adeline was considered as bad luck. It is her story of how she has got through her life. Niang her evil stepmother sent her away to boarding schools and she beat her as well. This is a sad and heartwarming story so please read it.